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Midwest Futures

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154 pages, Hardcover

Published April 7, 2020

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Phil Christman

6 books11 followers

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5 stars
123 (37%)
4 stars
121 (36%)
3 stars
62 (18%)
2 stars
17 (5%)
1 star
5 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 72 reviews
Profile Image for Jordan.
166 reviews6 followers
April 13, 2020
This is a book about what "Midwestern" means. Any American will get some insight from it, but for me, as someone who grew up in southern Indiana, specifically in Bloomington, I feel both natively midwestern and also not midwestern at all. The book helped me understand just what the term has meant during its existence, and helped me solidify previously nebulous concepts with a grounding in their history and the history of the region. As the title suggests, the tie the binds all the nebulous concepts of what is midwestern can be traced back to the idea of a future, or many futures. The place was modeled on hope, and in hope it persists. The book explores those futures, as seen from the past and present, with a gentleness and caring for its subjects that feels rare in a book with this kind of historical scope.

It is also a paean for a kind of egalitarian leftist-humanist understanding of the present and its possibilities, with nurturing and understanding, and with a grace and vulnerability in the writing that feels rare and is most welcome.
Profile Image for Reverenddave.
311 reviews11 followers
May 8, 2020
Early in the book, Christman quotes Willa Cather, "No one who has not grown up in a little prairie town could know anything about it." As someone who did and then moved away and has watched those outside those little prairie towns struggle to understand and describe them this is unquestionably true. However, in this book Christman comes about as close as anyone has to translating that understanding.

In a series of essays, he tackles the history, tropes, social and political movements that have defined or attempted to define what it means to be Midwestern. The book is at times a little messy and discursive, indicative perhaps of the difficulties of capturing the "collocation of moods or tropes, some of them contradictory" that he (correctly in my opinion) posits make up the Midwest, which is definable more as a state of mind than a geographical region.

Profile Image for Alexander Pyles.
Author 12 books37 followers
August 12, 2021
"Perhaps this is one of the gifts that family gives us: a lifelong confrontation with the fact that we will only, at best, lovingly fail the people who were counting on us most."

I wasn't expecting that snippet to be so piercing, but goodness what a microcosm of this entire book. The Midwest is a region that exemplifies this. It is a region that we attempt to do our best to, but is taken for granted and taken advantage of--manipulated.

For such a short little book, Christman packs tones of witty anecdotes, smooth prose, and cutting facts/history that will entice the reader for more of his work.

A brilliant work.
Profile Image for Johnny.
307 reviews5 followers
January 8, 2022
The most Midwestern thing Christman does is shout out the Midwest's lefty independent presses in the middle of the book, naming Haymarket and half a dozen others, without mentioning Belt, the publisher of this book, but clearly meaning Belt.

This is a bit of a hidden memoir, as the book is more or less framed by Christman processing his own non-departure from a region that punished him in his childhood. At the core of this book is Christman's own alienation from and anger at the surface-level affect and politics and history of his family and by extension Midwest, and his choice to not leave either because of his deep identification with the principles embodied by the actual promise of the soil, the hummus, the roots. That identification may seem corny, but it rests upon pushing the Midwest past its role as a fund for external interests bent on extraction--which Christman could do a whole book on that I would happily read--and into a place that has plenty for all.

Less speculative-(non)-fiction than I expected and more casual history and personal essay. His anti-ideology take, which he names at one point but is sort of implied throughout, is refreshing and also feels very Midwestern. Every time he talks about boosterism I was nodding big time, because to be from a place that situates itself in the hauntology shadow of its past failed futures is to have boosterism so thoroughly baked into how you imagine civic life that it becomes the substructure of arguments all over your life. I almost wish he would have just gone full Fisher hauntology on the Midwest, but Christman is more in to acting into a better material future than that, so good on him.
Profile Image for Hillary Copsey.
446 reviews18 followers
May 3, 2020
Belt Publishing consistently puts out solidly written and researched books about the Midwest.
Profile Image for Alexa Johnson.
160 reviews2 followers
August 9, 2022
Though there were parts dry enough to make me question whether I could finish - I do wish I was more interested in the economic history of this nation- those parts provided context for why the Midwest is the Midwest. And the rest of the book was so, so good. Occasionally funny, even. As a lifelong resident of this area of the country, I find it as easy as anyone to lapse into believing the same stereotypes and assumptions about life here: we're boring, we're uninteresting, we're too white, we don't possess enough diversity, the best of who we are is long behind us. None of that is true. And like the author, I find it both compelling and crucial to think about what direction we're headed in amid the next century's crises of climate, economy, and culture. Anyway, this made me think a lot of good thoughts.
41 reviews7 followers
October 20, 2021
Some interesting reflections on the outside influences on the Midwest and the exploitation of resources and people who live here. I felt it was mired in the angsty rhetoric of liberals in the early Trump years, and a call to action items that ultimately don't solve the systemic issues brought to light.
Profile Image for Abby Rubin.
476 reviews3 followers
January 18, 2021
Christman breaks down the past, present, and future of the midwest into 36 short, interconnected essays. To write a book about the midwest, you have to first define it. The way that Christmas describes the inability to define the midwest is one of the many reasons for anyone who has ever called the midwest home to read this book. There is something consistent and inexplicable about the midwest. At one point in US history, we were the unknown frontier. Then we were the seat of manufacturing and the American dream. Now we are "flyover country" and fighting for someone to notice us. Where other writers could see a decline or a place to give up on, Christman somehow ends this book hopefully, which is great for a place that so many people call home.
776 reviews5 followers
January 14, 2021
As someone who has spent his whole life in and around Chicago, I was interested to see this take on the American Midwest. This collection of essays from Mr. Christman range from the interesting to the thought-provoking to the not-so-interesting. The best essays addressed the history and definition of the Midwest, and how it has changed over time. I also enjoyed the unique structure of the book, as well as some of the personal stories. But the philosophical and theoretical stuff was kind of ho-hum.

Profile Image for Sasha.
2 reviews2 followers
January 25, 2022
Having grown up in the Midwest, I appreciated many of the book’s insights into the unique psychology, history, and self-image of the Midwest, especially its involvement in creating or imagining “futures” for the country as a whole.

Having worked in community building efforts in the Midwest, however, I felt that the book’s tone was far too pessimistic on the whole for me. One of the things that I love about working in the social and civic sector in the Midwest is that it generates optimism and momentum amidst the worst of circumstances. I feel like efforts to create new futures on the community level throughout the Midwest could have been highlighted much more than they were (which would have served to give back agency to people who have suffered from disinvestment and marginalization across the region, many of whom are leaders in the community-oriented efforts I am referring to). The book did progress towards a more optimistic and future-oriented vision near the end, but it was still so peppered by a typical Midwestern pessimism that I have tried to fight back against for much of my life.

That said, I enjoyed this book as an introduction for myself into the broader contemporary literature and literary criticism of the Midwest, which I hope to explore more after finishing this book! I will be thinking about the questions and challenges that this book posed for a long time to come.
Profile Image for Sam Klage.
5 reviews3 followers
April 27, 2021
Christman does a great job of intertwining the political history, economic policy choices, and social patterns of the Midwest together to pin down something that is famously hard to pin down. Midwest 'culture' is notoriously hard to describe. There is a feeling of the towns and communities throughout to be all alike, nowhere and everywhere at the same time. What does it mean when we say Midwesterners are 'normal'? Among many other things, Christman does a great job of exploring this, what it can do to people both negatively and positively, and the history behind how that came to be. He covers the history of the acquisition/theft of the land, the political and economic decisions that led to the decline of Midwest manufacturing, how David Lynch and Blue Velvet reflect the inherent duality/contradiction of Midwestern social conditions, and more in entries that are short and readable, yet very well researched and full of information, as well as personal reflections from the author that add what I found to bring compassion and emotional depth to many of the topics, particularly in the final chapter.
702 reviews26 followers
October 3, 2021
So good! Very impressed with what this author has managed to do in such a few pages. Beautiful writing, tremendously important insights, so much history and literature brought into fruitful perspective by this author's wonderful research and reflections. The best kind of synthesizing of the personal and the political-economic. Highly recommended!

If you think you don't care about the Midwest, then you should really read this book for sure, because you will learn a lot, but in a really enjoyable way. If you do care about the Midwest, you will be well rewarded for engaging with this book, too. In short, if you read this, you'll be glad you did.

Last but not least, a word of praise for Belt Publishing for bringing out this kind of work. If you are not familiar with Belt, by all means check them out: https://beltpublishing.com/
48 reviews
February 27, 2022
Really interesting thoughts on what the Midwest is and the foundations of the Midwest past present and future. Enjoyed the first few rows much more than the last ones, but recent history in the Midwest is messy and presumably harder to digest.
Profile Image for Paul.
40 reviews
March 12, 2022
I liked this book. It’s comprised of 6 short essays about the Midwest, and was a quick read.

Someone on book tok who I follow praises this book constantly and said it was one of the best books they read in 2021. That overhype maybe took something away for me, but I enjoyed this.
13 reviews
April 1, 2021
Thoughtful & thought-provoking telling of the past that also sets up possible futures. Also, discovered a cool, small, Midwestern press.
Profile Image for Matt Beatty.
2 reviews
May 2, 2020
The 36 sections that make up this book range from high enjoyable to revelatory. And the “notes” section provides a great list of further reading that will occupy me for some time!
March 27, 2022
This book did a good job capturing the sense of life in the Midwest and definitely does so through the lenses of an intellectual and liberal midwesterner (which can seem like an oxymoron). It touches a lot on the history and driving forces that made the Midwest what it is today.
Profile Image for Douglas.
140 reviews13 followers
May 10, 2020
The clearest view I've received of why the mythical and real "Midwest" is forever the opportunity-space of tomorrow, and why that's rarely been a good thing.
Profile Image for Eric.
78 reviews5 followers
February 24, 2021
Another well-wrought title from Belt Publishing, Midwest Futures is part Marxist-inflected socioeconomic history of the Midwest (hint: it's always been about financializing natural resources at the expense of every other consideration), part projection into the near future prospects for the region, with an emphasis on how if we always do what we've always done (exploitation), we'll always get what we've always gotten (environmental devastation, urban blight, and wasted human potential). It brings together all the ways capitalist ideology has shaped (and will continue to guide) our social, political, and economic relations. Christman, a lecturer at University of Michigan, is a prolific writer and cultural critic—I just checked out his website and look forward to perusing his online essays and reviews—and a native Michigander, and his deep yet complicated (even problematic?) relationship with being a Midwesterner resonated with me. I always find it a little difficult reviewing Belt's output, because they aren't afraid to indulge their authors' idiosyncrasies, and here and there Midwest Futures' clarity suffers from that fast-and-loose editorial style. Some of the historical material in the book's first half feels slapdash, although I admit that may be because I've recently read several other, more detailed, popular works of early-American history by academic historians, and Midwest Futures does not intend to be a deep dive. Instead, it serves Belt Publishing's ongoing project of producing smartly opinionated and thoroughly enjoyable primers on all topics Midwestern. And in that, Midwest Futures succeeds admirably.
1 review
January 29, 2022
I read this book on the recommendation of some TikTok influencer who read 150 books last year and put this near the top of his list. I find myself a little surprised that I could hate so much a book that made it into the top 1% or so of ANY reader’s ranking—but my bad for thinking that the top percentile of one person’s recommendations is something like the top percentile of, say, Rotten Tomatoes’ rankings (the latter being a more viable heuristic in averaging critical judgments).

This book is most valuable for its bibliography—some of the books/articles etc. cited within are of real substance. And some credit is due for the work of compiling these, offering excerpts for the lazy reader (probably me, probably you) who won’t go seek them out.

But what beyond this work of compilation is truly interesting here? The author’s reflections on the stuff he compiles aren’t usually all that interesting—his reflections on his own personal biography sometimes are (e.g. his musings about his sudden fantasy of becoming a homesteader post-Trump) but I didn’t sign up to read a memoir.

And my politics are pretty liberal, but Jesus Christ—the ratio of moralizing to information is way off. I read this book to learn about the Midwest, not to be reminded for the umpteenth time e.g. that corporations are an obstacle to dealing with climate change. WE GET IT. Anybody that doesn’t get it won’t get it after reading the book, so most of the moralizing felt like virtue signaling than any real sort of political education.

I honestly wonder who is capable of reading this book without groaning constantly—apparently the overwhelming majority of readers. Are some readers so inundated with moralizing books like this that it doesn’t bother them anymore?
Profile Image for JK.
Author 3 books8 followers
November 27, 2021
If you’re from the Midwest and you need to feel bad about being from the Midwest read this book. I am a big fan of Belt Publishing and I was excited to read this book. It started out as an interesting topic with the first chapter discussing the boundaries and contours of what it means to say the Midwest and I was exited to see where the author would go next. But after a couple of chapters it became depressing. what he had to say is that anything good about the Midwest seems to be a myth. so just remember if you grew up there and felt good about it, read this book it will let you know it not to trust your senses and that it was all a fairy tale. Our companies exploit us, cars are bad, Nazis are on the way, and there are racists everywhere. Near the end of the book the author focused on a very personal political agenda (very focused on ICE). If you need yet one more book to remind you to feel rotten about the state of the world this is the book for you.

In addition to his opening chapter I found the source notes at the end provided some interesting reading for the future.
Profile Image for Amanda Dee.
87 reviews3 followers
July 8, 2021
At once historical and futuristic, "Midwest Futures" is a survey of the place and mindset we have come to know as the Midwest. Phil Christman offers an incisive, focused analysis of what could have easily become unwieldy, looking to the terrain itself and the opposing visions that have been projected onto it. He unturns the stones of politics, economics, and culture while still finding poetry in the soil ("Perhaps the idea of soil, in humility, is an image of what is normal that is broad enough to include everybody, as the soil itself one day will"). I suspect that his own humility (maybe a distinctly Midwestern sensibility?) is what enables such an expansive yet nuanced investigation, one that takes nothing for granted by considering the agency of all major actors involved in the changing landscape. Christman understands that the Midwest is always much bigger than you think it is, as it inevitably becomes a stand-in, a synecdoche, for America.
Profile Image for Ali.
218 reviews5 followers
June 25, 2020
I really enjoyed this book. Phil Christman writes about that strange designation “the Midwest” and the place it purports to describe. He tells the history, discusses how the Midwest lives in American imagination and writing, and looks at pressing and future issues. Being from the same state as Christman and also from the Midwest I was keenly interested in this book and the ways the Midwest has been portrayed and is currently viewed. I did not resonate with everything he had to say about the Midwest, for instance that the towns defy description to those who grow up in them, but I thoroughly enjoyed this book nonetheless. I recommend it to anyone interested in why we call a wide swath of the middle of the country Midwest. Mom, Christmans political views are very different than your own so if you decide to read this, keep that in mind.
Profile Image for Nathan Shuherk.
246 reviews1,535 followers
April 30, 2021
The questions of the Midwest - how did it come to be, what has it been as what is it becoming, and why is it so easy to describe with generalities but never with realistic specificities.
One of my favorite (possibly favorite) books of the year.
Gorgeous writing and a fascinating perspective that flow easy and are so compelling for such a quick read.
Profile Image for Trish.
55 reviews
July 29, 2020
Thought provoking essays on what is means to be a Midwesterner, and an attempt to define and describe the Midwest. Lots of good references to reflect on. It was not exactly light reading but interesting and current all the same.
Profile Image for Kelsey.
293 reviews21 followers
July 15, 2022
Maybe 2 stars is a little harsh? I dunno! I expected to enjoy this, and while it was certainly interesting, I wouldn't say it impressed me. The strongest section was Row 4, comprising primarily of literary criticism (definitely his forte); I also enjoyed the few essays that Christman wrote about his own life and experiences. Most of these linked essays were about history, though, and I do not like reading my history editorialized like this. Maybe that is part of the struggle of both trying to relay a history and reflect on it; but I would have much preferred a straight history followed by insight, rather than being force-fed history and opinion at the same time.

I was especially interested to read this book because Christman currently lives and works in my hometown, Ann Arbor. Christman is like a lot of people who live there: super leftist, super guilt-ridden, super preachy. One of my great realizations about my hometown since moving away has been that it is not culturally Midwestern, even if geographically it rests in one of the few states that most everyone agrees counts as the Midwest. Rather, it's an island, stuck in a vast Midwestern sea -- truly "25 square miles surrounded by reality," a phrase I could not understand until I moved away. And having spent the years since I moved away living in Wisconsin and Iowa, I really have developed the perspective that progressives from super-liberal enclaves do lack an understanding of what life is like most everywhere else. I would have loved more from Christman on his journey from a poor kid in Alma, Michigan, and the views he hints he had until age 17 or so, to who he is now. THAT is the Midwestern (geographic) story I want to read, even if I find Christman's current self-flagellation depressing and misguided, and wish he would extend himself the same grace he extends to some others in this slim tome.
Profile Image for Ev.
62 reviews40 followers
December 29, 2021
As someone who spent a large portion of my childhood in the Midwest and still visits frequently for family, many parts of this book felt like getting slapped in the face. Christman flawlessly recognizes some of the inescapable sentiments and atmospheres of the Midwest that are so heavy they feel oppressive, accurately noting the thorough sense of "mid". Of total normalcy to the point of pride, and yet self-hatred at the same time. Reading the historical basis for these feelings helped me understand how we found ourselves in this predicament, offering a name for what is felt but rarely consciously identified.

In other sections, this book completely lost me. The curious conflation of immigration policy and climate change, for example, did not come across comprehensibly. I still do not know what point he was making there. In another area, his argument that corporations are a separate groupthink entity to a regular person seemed to miss the idea that corporations are made up of people in the end. His self reflection in the last section came across as empty, considering how he explored Midwestern willful ignorance and dual existence only pages before. He came across as one still in denial of the very things he decried, excusing his failure to act on his own convictions about climate change because of...his mom? Perhaps I am being unusually critical, but you cannot write calling out an entire people group and then not expect a similar treatment.

All in all, I would recommend this book for its thought provocation and insight into the history of American "normalcy" - but would not raise it up as a perfect gospel of the Midwest or any of the ideologies it represents. Looking at the same data, we all still may draw different conclusions and I felt that keenly in this read.
Profile Image for Gregg.
449 reviews20 followers
June 21, 2021
Brilliant, erudite, conversational, and well sourced. The book explores various guises and perceptions of the Midwest, pins down some definitions and controversies, looks at the art, literature, history, and sociology of it, and ends with an extended rumination on racism, capitalism, and climate change and their attendant effects on the region. Hard to put down. Hard to get out of my skin. “Midwest” or “Midwestern” is often a insult, or at least dismissive, not less often with Midwesterners themselves (I’ve done as much myself), and this writer acknowledges, explores and counters it without breaking stride.

The Trump victory of 2020 looms over the cloak g chapters, and Christman invokes a “love thy neighbor” attitude towards the white working class that put him into power, even though 1) nowhere does the gospel say we should pretend like we don’t have an enemy, and 2) those voters will differ, are suffering from unbridled capitalism, and the effects of a warming planet, just like the rest of us. We should lean into the notion that, as we fight for what’s right and attend to our own complicity, we should remember that “we will only, at best, lovingly fail the people who were counting on us most.”
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